Chinese barbecue pork, or “char siu” in Cantonese, is a standard item found in every Chinese deli and restaurant. Not so traditional is my family's rather unique way of making it.
With paper clips.
And the credit goes to my uncle, Kin Woo. Sticking with convention, my uncle prefers to marinate his char siu (often made from the pork butt roast) in a mix that includes hoisin sauce, plum sauce, sugar and curing salt; the last ingredient is what gives the meat its bright red hue. But it's not just what he bakes the pork in that matters. It's how he bakes it.
When he was a college student, my uncle wanted to experiment with making traditional char siu. He says that “in the old days” in China, people would cook the pork in a clay or brick oven with a wood or charcoal fire underneath. There were bars inside the oven with metal hooks that held the meat over the heat.
Wanting to simulate that technique, my uncle bought some hooks from a cooking supply store. They proved too big to be useful. So one day, as family lore has it, he started fooling around with a paper clip. When he bent both ends into an S-shape, he discovered the perfect hook.
My uncle also found that by hanging the strips of meat from an oven rack instead of laying them flat in a pan, the pieces cooked more evenly, much as they had back in the traditional ovens in China. And he was able to cook more at a time — as many as 20 strips of meat at once.
And so the paper clips have been a trademark of his char siu for more than 30 years.
During that time, my uncle has taught various relatives how to make — as my non-Asian friends dub it — “paper clip pork.” My mom recently taught me. So, while other families make grocery runs before dinner, our family occasionally must go to Staples.
But the paper clips really do make all the difference. It's almost guaranteed the pork will be perfectly cooked all the way through and have a consistent texture.
Just remember to remove paper clips before serving!
Paper clip pork
Kin Woo prefers to use curing salt in his recipe, which gives the meat its traditional pink color. For ease, we substituted kosher salt, which was just as delicious.
Start to finish: 1 hour 15 minutes (30 minutes active), plus marinating
3- to 4-pound pork shoulder butt roast
8.5-ounce jar hoisin sauce
1 cup white wine
1/3 cup of sugar
1 tablespoon hot sauce
2 teaspoons kosher salt
24 large paper clips
Cut the pork lengthwise into 6 thick slabs. Cut each slab into 4 strips. Set aside.
In a large bowl, combine the hoisin, wine, sugar, hot sauce and salt. Mix well until the sugar has dissolved. Add the sliced pork and mix to ensure all of the meat is evenly coated. Cover and refrigerate for at least 24 hours, or ideally 48 hours.
When ready to cook, set one oven rack at the highest point. Remove the remaining racks. Heat the oven to 400 degrees.
Remove the pork from the refrigerator. Bend each paper clip, opening it to create a double-sided hook that resembles an S. One at a time, thread one side of a paper clip hook through one of the narrow ends of each strip of meat. If you hold one up by the paper clip, the meat should hang down vertically.
Open the oven and, using an oven mitt, pull the rack forward. Set a rimmed baking sheet lined with foil under it (it will rest on the door for the moment).
One at a time, use the paper clips to hook the pork strips onto the oven rack so they hang down from the rack's underside. When all of the meat is hung, push the rack and the rimmed baking sheet into the oven. Roast for 45 minutes. When the meat is cooked, carefully unhook and remove the paper clips before serving.
Per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 460 calories; 140 calories from fat (30 percent of total calories); 16 g fat (5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 160 mg cholesterol; 19 g carbohydrate; 51 g protein; 1 g fiber; and 1110 mg sodium.